Cuba — A people to people cultural exchange

Like its famous cigars, Cuba remains elusive, richly layered and tightly rolled.

Its economic, social and political dichotomies fascinated us on our recent trip.

Against a lush, green backdrop, yoked oxen plow fertile fields of tobacco, sugar cane and corn, but, according to our local guide, the country imports an astounding 80% of its food.

A living museum of beautifully maintained, vintage, American cars roll merrily through city streets and suggest a country that has been frozen in time. But, as my sweaty camera strap will attest, Cuba is anything but frozen.

Cuba’s socialist hybrid government, “Fidelism” to some, keeps a firm grip on the daily activities of its citizens with limited Internet access, rigid ration cards, restricted distributions of piped in water, and regulated recreation. But, as an architect explained to us during a tour of Old Havana, there is no eminent domain. The government owns the land, the families own the homes. The result is a reconstruction nightmare.

Old Havana has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site, but, in order to restore the homes, the families have to be relocated and no one wants to go. In one situation, a single family home houses 20 families and not one will agree to move. This unlikely stalemate has lasted six years.

Three of Cuba’s “no’s” might explain another interesting dichotomy in a country many consider third world: the life expectancy in Cuba is 78.55, a hair shy of the United States’ 79.

  • No charge for education. If you have the grades, you can continue through school all the way to your doctorate, medical or legal license for free.
  • No need for insurance as all medical care is free and burial expenses are nominal.
  • No guns. Hunters rent them directly from game farms and return them before they leave.

The American embargo against Cuba, instituted in 1960 in response to the Cuban missile crisis, remains. Americans are still barred from traveling to Cuba as tourists, though, while we were in Cuba, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted permission for commercial flights to Cuba that could begin as early as this fall. We went on a chartered flight as members of Tauck Tours People to People cultural exchange.

Educational in nature, our trip took us to a tobacco farm and factory, an after school program, a dance studio, an urban art center, a Little League baseball diamond, a cooking school, Ernest Hemingway’s home, an architectural tour, a presentation by an economist, and historic sites throughout Havana.

We ate in most of our meals in paladares, Cuban restaurants run by private citizens out of their own homes.

I can’t cram all of our experiences into one post and this one is already too long, but I am looking forward to telling more stories about some of the really interesting things we saw.

Most memorable for us were the people — those with whom we traveled, those we formally met, and those we saw going about their daily business in a country that finds itself possibly on the verge of some astounding changes.

We danced in a conga line with an adorable group of children at an after school program in Havana. Their artwork is on the walls.
We drank blackberry daiquiris in a really lovely palador. The restaurant  is on the first floor, the owners and residents live above. (Photo credit John Roley)
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I think this pictures captures Cuba — the gorgeous old car (Cubans have not had access to American cars since the revolution in 1959), the Cuban flag and the giant tribute to Che Guevara.
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We saw gorgeous old cars everywhere.
Unintentional bumper selfie.
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Kathy the librarian in front to the national library of Cuba.
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Owned by the state, Cuban billboards encourage loyalty to Fidel. Work, effort and dedication. I have to say, though, that Cuba is many wonderful things, but Cuba Libre it is not.
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Bullet holes remain from an unsuccessful student uprising against President Batista in 1957. Two years later, Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara would lead a successful coup.
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We enjoyed a passionate discussion about reconstruction efforts in Old Havana from this architect…
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However, some Cuban builders lack attention to detail. Check out the position of this walkway to this set of doors. Whoops.
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A rich and varied group of people, full of light and bright colors. We loved our short time with the Cuban people.
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This wall is part of Muraleando, an urban mural project.
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One of our local guides was especially proud of his resemblance to a certain U.S. president.
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I caught this scene while hurtling down the highway in a tour bus. This is a police car traveling at full speed. Check out the back seat where someone is holding the back door closed. Crazy, right?
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I’m not a cigar fan, but I really enjoyed our afternoon with Rodrigo at a Cuban tobacco farm.
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For nearly 58 years, Cuba has been a Castro country. Fidel will turn 90 in August and Raul is 85. It will be interesting to see what happens to Cuba in the next few years.


7 thoughts on “Cuba — A people to people cultural exchange

  1. Fabulous post. Do you happen to have the name of the Cuban League pitcher we spoke with?

  2. I found the baseball player’s name on the card he gave us. All the best to your family.

  3. Muy interesante. Magníficas fotos. Informativo.
    Hope you do share more with all of us.

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